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LEBBIRDS

by Chris Wayan, 2004

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Sketch of a lebbird reading a book, sprawled on a branch above her herd of dark brown milk-monkeys. Leopard torso and spots, but handlike forepaws, hawklike wings, a high forehead and large eyes. Click to enlarge.
SPECIES

Lebbirds are a winged people of the equatorial trenches, with a leopard-like torso and spots, but handlike forepaws, hawklike wings, a high forehead and eyes nearly as big as a nocturnal creature--Tharn's sun is dim and red enough before it's filtered through the dense canopy of a trench rainforest. A blue-eyed lebbird reared erect in a tree, extending her left wing to show us the structure.  Click to enlarge.

The common feline traits of lebbirds and centahs are mere evolutionary convergence, not a sign of close relationship. Their most recent common ancestor was some six-limbed trench-dweller that likely had no feline features at all. Certainly the two species are closer cousins than either is to, say, lobbras or mamooks, but that could be said of nearly any people on Tharn.

Note the long hind legs; lebbirds can stand and walk upright along branches, balancing with their long tail, or using it as a sort of third leg. Yet they can climb using all four legs, or swing by their arms and prehensile tail, as well as fly. This complex design-compromise means you can find lebbirds in many environments--if it's a lowland, that is. Lebbirds, like arthom live only where the air is dense enough to let them fly.

Though I've dubbed them lebbirds because they look quite feline, these are not Terran cats--the most purely carnivorous creatures on our planet. In contrast, lebbirds were originally omnivorous hunter-gatherers of the jungle canopy, eating a wide variety of fruits, nuts, flowerbuds, bugs, small animals and fish. Fish-mad, in fact--they dive like pelicans from clifftop villages by many trench-lakes. Today, some are ethical vegetarians (high-protein ones, heavy on dairy products from herds of domestic milk-monkeys, plus bird- and lizard-eggs), but then, half them declare fish is a vegetable. What is it about sushi, anyway?

Nearly leopard-sized, lebbirds are far more delicate: hollow-boned! Even so, on Earth a large lebbird might top 25 kg (55 lbs); Tharn's weak gravity effectively halves this, making flight possible in the trenches. But on the plains and uplands, lebbirds are effectively grounded. They describe it as a nightmare of frustration--the terrible effort to rise, only to fall back exhausted in seconds. They can survive the plains, but mere survival's not living.

Of course, lebbirds could selectively breed for a smaller subspecies able to fly in the thin air of the plains--but with the tragedy of the wingbok haunting Tharn, they'd rather not risk their kittens. They'll caravan over the plains to other trenches, but not settle the heights.

Lebbirds aren't mere gliders, they've achieved true flight. But they're not nearly as specialized as Terran birds--or as good in the air. Ponderous fliers, Tharn's largest, near the weight limit for practical flight. It's an open question whether a lebbird could even get off the ground on Earth. Denser air to grab, but high gravity... Like driving with the brakes on!

Sketch of a lebbird in flight. Leonine pelt, handlike forepaws, hawklike wings, a high forehead and large eyes.
Still, though lebbirds struggle to get aloft, preferring a good run-on or to leap from a high branch, once they do get going, they can chug along at a pace rivaling large Terran birds on migration: up to 90 kph (55 mph). A lebbird can travel hundreds of km in a long Tharnian day; pole to pole in a few weeks. It's a freedom of movement unimaginable to a human before this century. And yet, it's narrow, too: lebbirds can fly over just 1% of Tharn's surface. The rest is too high, the air too thin, flight too exhausting. Their Tharn is discontinuous! Mere scattered gashes and pits, surrounded by Martian highlands.

BEHAVIOR

Lebbirds are highly social cats, easy-going, slow to anger, reluctant to fight--possibly due to their light bones and delicate wings. As sensual as leopards, they excel in dance, bodywork, seduction, sex, scents and herbs. Actors, dancers, musicians. Intensely curious, they make good therapists, shamans, and scientists--all fields with complex, multidimensional puzzles, like flying through the canopy they evolved in. With hunter's eyes, visually attuned to motion, they readily visualize changes over time; it was lebbirds who invented Tharnian calculus.

Profile of a winged leopard crouched, pawing at an hourglass.  Click to enlarge.
A lebbird, a winged, omnivorous, arboreal, intelligent cat. This is the shaggy, rather leonine, cold-adapted Yoee subspecies. I sketched this girl, an artist, while she drew me; the round object is her sketchpad.

You can guess from place names like Mrr, Worawora, Rree, Mwaa, Au, and L'ree, that lebbirds speak Trade Camaroo (the Tharnian trade tongue, a pidgin based on camaroo speech) with a very strong accent. Whimsical grammar, too. For such bright creatures, they have a fuzzy notion of syntax!

Lebbirds themselves say words and ideas come to them in nonlinear patterned wholes. In Trade Camaroo they use the word "meshes"--but in their own tongue they say rrao-luu: "a mass of interlaced twigs and branches." The difference is revealing. Camaroo evolved in high, treeless alps, but they netted fish; the connotation of "meshes" thus suggests making a thing to catch ideas--choosing to structure your thoughts this way. Lebbirds, however, are arboreal, and read travel-routes through the canopy as a unit, instinctively. Not a choice, but a perception.

Their pattern-sense may twist their grammar, but it gives lebbirds startling flashes of empathy and insight into other species. This, plus their strong sensuality, makes them the Tharnian record-holders for cross-species liaisons (whether casual or the equivalent of Terran marriage).

While all lebbirds are sensual and nonlinear, by no means all are artists or intellectuals. Many have remained quite traditional cliff-fishers and orchardists. Even for urban lebbirds, flying, swimming and especially climbing fill a primal need.
Distribution map of an intelligent species called lebbird, native to Tharn, a dry thin-aired world

HABITAT

Lebbirds evolved by the shores of equatorial Mrr Trench; today they've spread to Yoof Trench to the east, and more recently over Trunzip Pass to Otz Trench and the huge Heloon impact basin. Most lebbirds live 3-5 km below bedlevel; at less than 2 km down (-6600') flight becomes difficult; at bedlevel it's impossible. Two kilometers up, lebbirds get altitude sickness. High passes can cause brain damage or even kill.

Thus, though their range sprawls halfway around Tharn, the actual area of lebbird settlement is small--under 2% of the surface--and unlikely to expand further. But that 2% is bigger than it seems: Heloon and the trenches are all air oases, the richest biomes on Tharn. The Lelei Canyon subspecies of lebbird, sprawled in the shade of rocks. Lightly built feline with large foxlike ears, long legs, large eyes, and hawk wings. Native to Tharn, a mostly dry Marslike world-model.

Lebbirds have a love affair with trees--they feel lost in the open without them, and are reluctant to settle a trench too dry for woods, no matter how warm. The two main exceptions are:

  1. Lake Hoom, whose sunny capes and bays were striped with small streams descending from the Yoof Range above; immigrant lebbirds from the north followed the example of the pioneering elaffes and greatly expanded the irrigated orchards along these creeks.
  2. Lelei Canyon, where spectacular natural cliff-palaces lured a small, rangy, heat-tolerant, rock-climbing subspecies of lebbird (right) into living with huge, intelligent flyotes. They cultivate hanging gardens, and tend orchards on the canyon floor.

Days in the true rainforests are hot and humid, and lebbirds here sleep while the sun's high. The tree-cities really come alive at night, under the vast golden glow of Zeus, Tharn's primary, a gas giant twice Jupiter's mass. In the sketch below, the small white moon is Pegasia, larger and biologically richer than Tharn--quite Earthlike, in fact, if not quite Earth-sized. Together their brilliant, warm light outshines our dead little moon a thousand times; full color at midnight! The boughs and cafes full of a purring cats are quite magical--like Dunsany, Yeats or Tolkien's visions of Elfland: a luminous twilit world. Just substitute winged leopards for elves.

A winged leopard sitting in a tree at dusk, watching the 'moonrise' of huge, rusty, striped Zeus, and tiny bright Pegasia; mountains and trenchlake on horizon.  Click to enlarge.

Many lebbirds still live in treetop- and cliff-villages, but these traditionalists may be a minority today. After all I've said about lebbirds' love affair with trees, their second preferred habitat may seem paradoxical: non-lebbird cities! For lebbirds enjoy being around other species, and gravitate to multi-species towns. Trench cities all over Tharn have enough resident lebbirds to support cafes and restaurants with their distinctive, sweet-spicy cooking (having evolved in the tropical canopy, full of fruit and flowers, lebbirds have a sweet tooth and a taste for resins, florals and aromatic spices). Quite Southeast Asian. Hmm. I'm hungry now... A lebbird working behind a cafe counter. Native to Tharn, a mostly dry Marslike world-model.

If you get the chance to tour one of Tharn's equatorial trenches, do as the natives do. Fly at dawn and dusk, siesta all day, and go out to treetop cafes all night. Listen to music. Hear a good storyteller.

Try lebbird drama (character motivation may seem peculiar to humans, but the acting will grab you by the scruff of your neck!) Most of all, see some ballet. Air-ballet for certain, and love-ballet if you're not squeamish. Yes, it often involves sex on stage, but as this breaks no taboos for lebbirds, it's somehow innocent. Rather sweet, really.

If it's too sweet for you, just act on the lebbird proverb: "There are plenty of trees in the wood." Just glide to the next tree-cafe. You'll find a new circle, snack, fruit drink, band, sculpture jam, storyteller, song-duel, play, dance marathon...

Most Tharnians say that after death our souls fly to Pegasia, that lush blue moon with green lands peeking through veils of cloud...

But lebbirds disagree. Heaven, they insist, is a big crowded cafe.

Map of Tharn, a world-building experiment. Click a feature to go there.
Gazetteer: index of place names with descriptions. Or TOUR THARN! The following route snakes around Tharn, covering all major features
Tarkas Upland -- Tars Triangle -- Thoris Upland -- Raksar Sea -- Llana Upland -- Barsoom Basin -- Jahar Range -- Heloon Crater -- Heloon Desert -- South Pole -- Sola Upland -- Otz Trench -- Thuvia Upland -- Mrr Trench -- Far North -- Rronk Woods -- Parthak Crater -- Hastor Sea -- Varo Sea -- Yoof Trench -- Dejah Upland -- Dupdup Trench -- Felatheen Veldt -- Chinchak Mts -- South Seas -- Polodona Wood -- Sea of P'Tang



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